Church reform and its hierarchy

Women sharing a Eucharist‘Reform and renewal’ is the term used for the Church of England ‘s wide-ranging programmes of change. This post is about its proposal to rapidly increase the number of lay ministers : the unpaid to 17,500 (a 48% increase) and the paid to 2,000 (a 69% increase).

Reform and Renewal is a top-down initiative from the archbishops, so lay people may want a say. Laura Sykes has on her own initiative set up the Lay Anglican Public Colloquium to develop ideas on the best ways forward.

We begin from where we are. The 1662 Book of Common Prayer states at the introduction to the Ordination service:

It is evident unto all men diligently reading holy Scripture and ancient Authors, that from the Apostles’ time there have been these Orders of Ministers in Christ’s Church; Bishops, Priests, and Deacons.

No Patristics scholar would agree with this today, but it’s in the DNA of the Church of England. Its significance was greatly enhanced by the Tractarians, who stressed that when a deacon becomes a priest or a priest becomes a bishop, the Holy Spirit bestows on him (it had to be a him) a real, objective ‘grace’, a power to do the job.

Although very few Anglicans believe that now, it still moulds the way the Church of England conceives of ministry. Bishops are on a pedestal, treated as top decision-makers and authorities. Priests are in the system, part of the network in a way that excludes lay people. This hierarchy is a lot less influential than it was in the past, but it’s still there.

A few years ago when I was working with Malcolm Chamberlain he came at it from an Evangelical perspective and argued for 1 Corinthians 12 as a better approach: each of us does what we are good at and between us we make sure everything gets done.

I find this model more convincing. We need to be better at recognising who can contribute what, and use their skills regardless of status. This means we can’t pigeonhole people so easily. We have to become good at perceiving what people are good at and affirming them. Conversely we need systems for limiting the over-confident.

So should we abolish bishops and priests? As far as I know this isn’t being discussed by church leaders, but I think it would be good to do so. We would probably end up deciding to keep them, but with a clearer idea of why we need them. To my mind we need spokespeople for the church, on both a local and a national level, but we do not need to elevate them to a different spiritual status.

Back to the real world; that discussion isn’t going to happen. ‘Reform and Renewal’ is an initiative from the top – from those who have successfully climbed up the hierarchy and therefore often least aware of its shortcomings. What I fear is that the need to do things more effectively and sensibly will come up against a determination, usually unconscious, to hang onto the elements that have given the present leadership their status. The result could be that the whole system becomes more complicated rather than less.

For example, are we going to add another class to the hierarchy, so that as well as having bishops, priests and deacons sitting on the laity, we’ll have ‘lay ministers’ sitting on them as well? Presumably not, as lay ministers are just lay people. In that case, what’s the difference between an unpaid lay minister and an ordinary lay person? That they do something for the church? So we draw a line between people who do things for the church and people who don’t?

For everybody to play their part, without fussing about status, works best when everybody knows everybody else. It therefore works best on a local level. It is when we don’t know each other so well that we need to label each other and allocate status. I would like to see a church where everything that can be done locally is done locally. This would relieve the national leadership of a lot of work.

If we were to move in this direction, ‘lay ministers’ are not what we need. The word ‘lay’ is wrong because it just means that they are not priests or bishops. The word ‘minister’ is wrong because it implies a distinction between the people who do things and the people who don’t.

So what do we need? Well, maybe we need to break out of this top-down culture where we all have to do as we are told, and allow for every local community to explore for itself what its needs are. It will probably be bad for the statistics, but it may be good for the people and their faith.

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